SAVE for bibulous Blackpool, which may need neither introduction nor explanation, the large and possibly less meretricious village of Studley in Warwickshire is said to have more pubs per head than anywhere else in England.

As much is revealed on Ship of Fools – a curious name, possibly a biblical text – a Christian website that’s home to the Mystery Worshipper (or, rather, quite a lot of them).

Save for a logo that resembles the Lone Ranger, the Mystery Worshipper is a bit like me – a sort of ecclesiastical ground-hopper who ambles from church to church and then makes public what he thinks of it all.

Among the differences is that the Mystery man remains incognito, may even depart with a cry of “Hiyo Silver” having put his ten bob in the collection. The At Your Service column always seeks permission to attend – a bit hard to miss, anyway – and in 16 years can count on four fingers the refusals.

Unlike the column, Ship of Fools also sells mugs (Sip of Fools), picture postcards and has something called Gadgets for God.

The Mystery Worshipper, at any rate, had visited Studley parish church in April 2007 – Wildflower Sunday, apparently – and was greatly impressed.

The parish website had declared the hope of not being pigeonholed as any particular variety of church, the church itself was warmly welcoming and almost full, with lots of families.

He gave it nine out of ten – “such a lovely feeling of extended family”

– which probably is better than full marks, anyway, because that would be Fools’ gold. Studley’s priests were Richard and Margaret Deimel, licensed last Sunday to the five southwest Durham parishes that form the Escomb group and clearly delighted to be there.

NOT so long ago, of course, each parish would have had a priest of its own. Maybe a curate or two, as well, and a maid to do – as the late Hylda Baker used to say – about the house.

Now the rural parishes of Escomb, Etherley, Hamsterley, Witton-le- Wear and Witton Park – the order is judiciously alphabetical – must share and are greatly fortunate, as shortly they may discover, to have obtained two for the price of one.

Richard is priest-in-charge, his wife a self-supporting – meaning unpaid – associate minister. Both were additionally licensed as Durham diocesan advisers on new spiritual direction. Margaret – born in Fenham, Newcastle – will also lead retreats.

Though churches elsewhere close almost as fast as pubs – except, of course, in Studley, Warwickshire – in that thinly populated part of south Durham they’ve held on remarkably.

As well as five Anglican places of worship, the patch has five Methodist chapels, plus Roman Catholic and Baptist churches.

Pubs now open and shut at so great a rate that it’s a bit hard to count, but the churches may considerably outnumber them. Another for the sociologists, there may only be two shops.

“We would love to have one united church in each community,” Richard had said, carefully, over the telephone.

Until 1985, both were Roman Catholics. “We felt our faith would have an opportunity to grow within the Church of England,” said Richard. “We had no thought of being ordained at the time, it was more about developing our lay ministry.

We still have lots of friends who are Roman Catholic.”

He’s 61, had worked in elderly and psychiatric care and as a PA to senior management in both the Church Army and the Church Missionary Society. He was ordained in 1989, Margaret eight years later.

They’d lived for two years at Ushaw Moor while he trained for the ministry in Durham, are delighted to be back in the North-East and to have more chance of watching Newcastle United. “I sort of married into it,” said Richard.

They’re interested in Celtic Christianity, in football, folk music, arts, theatre, bread baking, politics and folk music, though not necessarily in that order, hope to work collaboratively to bring “hope, love and healing”

to their communities.

“It’s a big job and we can’t do it on our own,” said Richard. “It’s about building teams, working with our partner churches, being patient.”

THE licensing is at 3pm at St Cuthbert’s church, Etherley, conducted by the Right Reverend Mark Bryant, the Bishop of Jarrow. The day had begun much earlier with worship in each of the other four churches – if not quite a mystery tour, then what the bishop called a Cook’s tour, anyway.

The OK bus company used to run Sunday mystery trips when we were kids, the greater mystery that ninetenths of them went to South Shields.

By three o’clock, however, it’s not so much a ship they need as an ark, so great the day-long downpour.

Neville Vine, the area dean, “sincerely apologises” on behalf of Etherley’s churchwardens that the heating’s failed. Something to do with the pilot light being submerged.

A poor dog tied to a spout outside looks in danger of a similar fate.

Bishop Mark and the new arrivals are old friends, it transpires. Richard had taken the bishop’s elder son to his first football match; Margaret had some of her early conversations about possible ordination with the man who now was licensing her.

“It’s a particularly happy thing for me to be doing, a marvellous day,”

says the bishop.

The church overflows like St James’ Park in the 1950s, possibly the biggest crowd Etherley has seen since the cricket team across the road reached the National Village Cup quarter-final in nineteen hundred and long gone.

The service is manifestly joyous – apart from anything else, it’s a long time since they’ve had a parish priest – though, this being the established church, there are legal hoops as well.

At one point I’m sure there’s reference to the authority of the Durham Cathedral chapter being “notorious”.

Is this a mishearing, a misreading or what folk call a Freudian slip?

From near the back it’s also quite hard to pick up the messages of greeting from community and other church representatives, though there’s much laughter. It’s a sort of aural outer darkness, and doubtless symbolic.

It lasts 75 minutes, great queues forming to welcome the new priests outside. The sun’s finally appeared – doubtless symbolic, too.

While we’re waiting, a well-known Methodist asks if I’ve heard that they’ve been given 33 gorillas – but that, as they may say on the Ship of Fools, must be another story.